top of page

Bukele’s Illegal Re-election and the New Latin American Dream

Hannah Hains | Latin America Fellow

Nayib Bukele and Gabriela Rodríguez de Bukele in the Legislate Assembly of El Salvador. Image credit: Casa Presidencial , El Salvador via Wikimedia Commons.

El Salvador, the Central American nation of 6.3 million people, recently re-elected president Nayib Bukele, the self-proclaimed “world’s coolest dictator”. Bukele leads his own political party, is incredibly active on social media, implemented bitcoin as a legal tender, and overturned the constitution to be re-elected for a second term. Most notably, throughout his time as president, one of the highest homicide rates in the world has lowered. However, this has produced one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with 70,000 imprisoned during Bukele’s first term. These statistics have brought global attention to the young president’s tenure and the impacts he is having across the region. 


The Rise of Bukele 


The country’s stark political changes have made Bukele something of a cult figure in Latin America. On his social media, you’ll see hundreds of thousands of comments sending love from across the region, with many saying they need a president like him. Conversely, it is difficult to find comments that raise any degree of concern regarding how Bukele got to this point. Photos taken inside of Bukele’s mega-prison that show hundreds of tattooed men shackled and shirtless have previously gone viral, drawing international attention to Bukele. While the conditions inside the prison have called the attention of international human rights groups, his tactics have caused neighbouring populations to call for similar measures. 


Bukele’s leadership reflects surging centrist and populist sentiment in the region. Despite recent years seeing a decline in homicides and poverty rates across Latin America, rates slightly increased at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Growing poverty after years of increasing social and economic stability is perceived as a major threat to social mobility, with voters increasingly dissatisfied with their national representatives and seeking more extreme measures of change. This is described as the ‘new dream’ in Latin America; a reflection of a current global populist lurch that shifts away from traditional political parties and democratic conventions towards populism and a reckless upheaval of historic norms.

In many respects, this is a distinct pivot in Latin America’s political trajectory. Previous decades have seen calls for peace, democracy, and stability in a region rife with corruption, drug cartels, and violence. Democracy has failed to bring change to an area riddled with violence and poverty, and the priorities of the people have shifted. Now, the dream is to see populist leaders fight against the system and bring drastic change, no matter the cost. 


Changes in the Region 


Bukele’s strategy has proven infectious, and this fever extends further than protests and social media comments. His image appeared in election campaigns in Argentina in 2023 with calls for a similar style of leadership. Chile and Costa Rica - two of the safest countries in the region - have held protests calling for the government to follow Bukele’s playbook of mass-incarceration  to reduce violence. Bukele’s attacks on government institutions by force, like his deploying of military troops in congress to intimidate lawmakers, seem to have resonated with other leaders in the region. Heads of states such as Gustavo Petro in Colombia and Javier Milei in Argentina - the latter also a populist -  are becoming increasingly intolerant of opposition, and are defying their supreme courts


In 2023, Ecuador elected their own Bukele, a 36-year-old neoliberal-economic intellectual, Daniel Noboa, the son of Ecuador’s richest man. Elected during a recent surge in violent crime in Ecuador that has seen murder rates rise from 5 per 100,000 habitants in 2017 to 46 per 100,000 in 2023, Noaba has commenced a similar crackdown on gangs and implemented a state-of-exemption. He is advancing these efforts rapidly with no regard for their sustainability.  So far, his support across the country is  unwavering. Few governments in the region have delivered on citizens’ remands for security without exploiting opposition or breaching human rights. 


The Future of Latin American Leadership


Concerns of growing authoritarianism under Bukele from legal experts and NGOs made little impact, and on 5 February 2024 the young president was re-elected with a record-breaking 85% of votes. Few journalists have dared to interview those who have been victims of his injustice, such as the innocent people thrown into prison. This may be because reporters have been routinely called out by Bukele and, in some cases, had their phones infected with spyware. His crackdown on gangs and high incarceration numbers was made possible by a state-of-exemption, where police and military can arrest anyone who appears affiliated with gangs without an arrest warrant, and which suspends constitutional guarantees such as the right to legal representation. As of February 2022, the state-of-exemption has been unconstitutionally  renewed for the 23rd time.


In spite of Bukele’s numerous legal and human rights violations, there is no denying that his strategy has made El Salvador safer from violent crime. His government claims the homicide rate now sits at 7.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, a drastic shift from the 106 per 100,000 in 2015. While these figures are disputed and this safety has come at a high cost,  Bukele’s re-election suggests that Salvadorans are willing to pay that price. 


The new Latin American dream is dangerous for the region. It is a band-aid solution that creates more long term issues, violates justice, and undermines recently established democratic conventions after years of oppressive dictatorships in the region. As seen in El Salvador, many are willing to trade human rights, government transparency, even democracy, in order to see this dream be fulfilled - making Bukele seem like the best option going forward.

Hannah is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She recently completed her Bachelor of International Relations from The University of Adelaide and looks forward to undertaking postgraduate study in the future and investigating grassroots movements in Latin America.


bottom of page